Honorable Commander-in-Chief: Hari Singh ‘Nalua’

Some people believed there was antagonism between the Jammu Dogras and Hari Singh. The revenue collection of Peshawar was in the hands of Gulab Singh Dogra. Yar Mohammad of Peshawar owed Rs 1.35 million to Lahore Darbar. Gulab Singh colluded with the Khan. In the Battle of Jamrud, when Sardar Hari Singh was driving the enemy ahead of him, one of the Gulab Singh’s men in the Sikh army shot the Sardar in the back, from behind. The Sardar stooped over the neck of his horse. At the time people merely suspected Gulab Singh, but when he forgave Yar Mohammad’s dues, his complicity became more apparent. Bijay Singh Dogra revealed this information. The Sikhs were greatly pained. Following this, at Gulab Singh’s explicit request, Ranjit Singh granted him Hari Singh’s territory. On seeing the treatment meted out to the great Sardar who had conquered so many lands for the Lahore Darbar, many Sikh Sardars were disheartened. Following the death of Sardar Hari Singh Nalua, no further conquest was made in the direction of North West Frontier.

-        Giani Gian Singh, Tawarikh Guru Khalsa, 1891

Hari Singh Nalua (popularly Nalwa) was the Commander-in-Chief of the Sikh Khalsa Army in the North West Frontier in the Kingdom of Panjab ruled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Giani Gian Singh was fifteen years old the year Nalua died and was hired by Ranjit Singh to recite Guru Granth Sahib to him.

The great Nalua (1791-1837) was born in Gujranwala to Uppals – Gurdas Singh and Dharam Kaur. He was raised by his mother; his father died when he was eight years old. A the age of ten, he was initiated into the Order of the Khalsa.

During a hunting expedition in 1804, a tiger attacked Hari Singh and killed his horse. Refusing fellow hunters’ help, he was called Nalua (literally, the one with the tiger-like claws) for “having cloven the head of a tiger who had already seized him as its pray” barehanded; hence, the cognomen Bagh-Mar or Tiger-Killer. At the time, he was thirteen years old.

At the age of fourteen, Nalua entered the Court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in an arbitration dispute and rose from an attendant to the Izazi-i-Sardari:  Honorable Commander-in-Chief. Nalua either commanded or participated in 20 major battles. Some major battles included:  Kasur (1807), Attock (1813), Multan (1818), Shopian (1819), Mangal (1821), Mankera (1821), Nowshera (1823), Sirikot (1824), Saidu (1827), Peshawar (1824), and Jamrud (1837).

During the battle of Jamrud, Mahan Singh with 600 men was surrounded by Pathan soldiers in the Jamrud fort. No one was willing to take the message to Nalua who was stationed in Peshawar due to an illness. Who could carry the message through the volley of fire with every inch of land overrun by Pathan soldiers?  Harsharan Kaur stepped forward: “I will not hesitate to lay down my life and will make every effort to reach Peshawar. If you hear loud canon fire tomorrow morning, you will know that I have accomplished my mission. In case you do not hear this sound, you may presume that I may have sacrificed my life without completing the task to me.”    Everyone present proclaimed:  “What a unique and fearless women you are, dear sister!”   She left Jamrud fort around 10 pm, traversed a difficult terrain through the Pathan battalions, and reached Peshawar around 2 am. The letter was immediately delivered to Nalua who ordered a canon be fired to announce the arrival of brave Harsharan Kaur. He rushed 10,000 Sikh soldiers to Jamrud fort .

An able administrator, Nalua served as the Governor of Kashmir (1820-21), Greater Hazara (1822-37), and Peshawar (1834-36). He was also the Viceroy of the Western Frontier (1822-33), and was sent to the most troublesome spots of the Sikh empire in order to "create a tradition of vigorous and efficient administration."

In 1831, Nalua led a diplomatic mission to Governor-General of British India which resulted in the Ropar Treaty meeting between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the head of British India. Baron Charles Hugel noted:

Hari Singh Nalwa was the person sent by Ranjit Singh to invite Lord William Bentink to confer with the Maharaja at Simla; and as I happened to know most of the persons he had met there, our conversation was very different from the majority of such interviews in India; and really consisted of a due exchange of ideas, and of references to events which had actually taken place. His questions proved him to have thought and reasoned justly: he is well informed on the statistics of many of the European States, and on the policy of the East India Company, and what is very rare among the Sikhs; he can both read and write the Persian language.

More than fifty-five buildings are attributed to Nalua, including forts, ramparts, towers, gurduaras, water-tanks, samadhis, temples, mosques, towns, havelis, sarais and gardens. In 1822, Nalua built the fortified town of Haripur, the first planned town in the region with a superb water distribution system.

Seventy years later (1890-93), Prof. Puran Singh in On Paths of Life describes growing up in Haripur

Haripur has a beautiful green little market-place where the people of Tanol and Khanpur and also the Amb frontier villages outside the British administration come for all kinds of purchases and sales. To Haripur come grain, jaggery and wools and ghee, and out goes the salt, cloth and dyes and trinkets and toys. Pretty little canals cut out the Dor stream run racing about the town. The borders of Haripur are draped with a voluptuous profusion of jasmine flowers and gardens full of prunes and apricots and mango and mulberry. The cool shade of gardens and the flowing canals make Haripur a little, poor man’s paradise in hot summer

Legendary Nalua took Panjabi arms across the Sindhu River and into the Pukhtun heartland. Hundred and sixty five years after his death, Pukhtun mothers were still restraining recalcitrant children with a whisper:  Chup Sha! Hari Singh raghle! – Be quite! Hari Singh comes! 

Darmesteter in Chants Popularies des Afghans (1889) records:

Each year, Hari Singh followed by his invincible Akalis (the Immortals) was going to raise taxes from the Yousoufzais, tracking them down in the mountains and in their most inaccessible dens. Long after his death, the mothers kept saying to the crying child:  “Keep silent or Hari Singh will come; and to this day, old men still show the place where “the tiger” chased them like a herd of sheep.

In 2002, a Khan taxi driver who took my wife and I from Peshawar to Khyber Pass via Jamrud fort confessed to us:  “My mother used to say to me, go to sleep, Nalua is about to come.”

Recently, indisputable invincibility of the Afghans is evident against the Soviets in the 1980s or the Americans post 9/11, the only historical exception to-date is when Hari Singh Nalua brought them to their knees.

A late nineteenth century account by Misr Hari Chand urf Qadaryar in Si-harfi tiji records Nalua’s bravery:

The Sikhs fought the Pathans with such valor that the latter lost their ground.
Sardar Hari Singh, sword in hand, bloodied the face of hundreds of Pathans.
Afzal Khan was a brave Pathan, but even he shied away from the battle.
He left the battlefield and retreated to the other side of the Khyber Pass, says Qadaryar.

Nalua built all main Sikh forts in the trans-Indus region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa:  Jehangira fort and Nowshera fort on the left and right banks of Kabul river, respectively. He also built Sumergarh fort in Peshawar, Fatehgarh fort in Jamrud, and Uri fort in Kashmir; reinforced Akbar's Attock fort on left bank of Indus river.

Nalua also built Gurduara Panja Sahib in Hassan Abdal to commemorate Guru Nanak Sahib and donated gold for Akal Takht Sahib’s dome destroyed during 1984 Ghallughara (genocide). Accounts by William Moorcroft (1823) and Charles Hugel cite “Sikh fanatics” (referring to Jathedar Akali Phula Singh) visited the site.  Records of Dharamarth (religious) grants cite Nalua’s charity to “Bedis, Hindu and Muslim Faqirs, Sayyids, Pandas, Gurduaras, Bairagis, etc.” even though he was labelled a “very bigoted Sikh” by non-Sikh historians.

On 30 April 1837, Nalua died fighting the Pathan forces of Dost Mohammed Khan of Afghanistan and was cremated in the Jamrud Fort. In 2002, I saw the memorial inside the fort at the mouth of the Khyber Pass which read:  “Tribute to the Great General of the Sikhs, Hari Singh Nalwa, Gajju Mall 1892.”

Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim poets penned tributes to Nalua in diverse poetic forms:  Var, Jangnamah, Siharfi, Kabbit, Savayye, Dohre, Deodh, and so on. Prominent among them include:  Qadir Bakhsh, Misr Hari Chand urf Qadir Yar, Sita Rama, Ram Dayal Anand, Kahn Singh Banga, Gurmukh Singh, Jaswant Singh Watna, Manohar Singh Nirman, Sahai Singh, Harinder Singh Rup and Prof. Mohan Singh. An anonymous Kabbit can still be heard eulogizing Nalua which has been passed down the generations of Dhadhis:

Hearing name and acts of valor of the one who loved Divine,
he was benevolent yet made Mughals tremble.
He heard what the valiant alone hear,
his enemies sang his praise though they lost nerve at his sight.
Lover of the Tenth Guru graced with the warrior-spirit,
protector of eternal Dharam showered benevolence.
Now he departed this world leaving his mortal remains behind,
breaking Maharaja’s heart, Hari achieved Divine Freedom.

Sohan Lal Suri, a double agent, in Umdattul Twarikh records the statement of Maharaja on hearing the news of Nalua’s death.

… the deceased Sardar was no doubt a wise and mature man, yet he consigned his life to the Creator by showing bravery and courage … he did not spare anything, not even his life, to prove true to the salt of Maharaja.

After the deaths of Izazi-i-Sardari (Hari Singh Nalua) and Sher-e-Panjab (Maharaja Ranjit Singh), mercenary generals like Lal Singh and Tej Singh were after “personal aggrandizement at the expense of the Sikh independence” remakes J.D. Cunnigham in History of the Sikhs published in 1849, the year of Panjab’s annexation by the British. Chief Minister Raja Gulab Singh Dogra negotiated the best deal for himself to rule Kashmir; Cunnigham adds he “suddenly perplexed the Governor-General by asking what he was to get for all he had done to bring about a speedy peace, and render an army an easy prey.”

It was only the Khalsa that fought to protect the Kingdom of Panjab while others conspired with the British to annex it. Sardar Sham Singh Attariwala’s martyrdom bares testimony to it and so does the detail account in the Jangnamah of Shah Mohammad.

In the Kingdom of Panjab, the village was the basis of administration and the panchayat was an institution which administered justice among the villagers. The main stress was laid on the reconciliation of the two parties. The court of the chief or the Sardar, including Hari Singh Nalua in his territory, was graded as first and above the panchayat. The courts dealt with civil and criminal cases of all kinds and resorted to punishments and fines. In the cases pertaining to Sikh affairs or the personal affairs of the chief of the Misl (group in Sikh confederacy of commonwealth), Gurmatas (resolutions on behalf of the Guru) were adopted by the Sarbat Khalsa (Sikh Collective Council).

For example, in 1796, Sarbat Khalsa chose Sardar Ranjit Singh as the supreme commander to fight Shah Zaman who was aspiring to re-establish the Afghan rule in Lahore. Additionally, in 1805, Jaswant Rao Holkar the Maratha Chief visited Amritsar for seeking Maharaja Ranjit Singh's help against the British. So, Ranjit Singh convened a meeting of the Sarbat Khalsa to decide the fate of Holkar. Syed Muhammad Latif in History of the Punjab states: “It was unanimously resolved in this council that the chief of Lahore and the Sikh nation should interpose as mediator between the fugitive Marhatta chief and the British government.”

However, in 1831 at Ropar, Prince Kharak Singh was declared the successor to Maharaja Ranjit Singh without convening the Sarbat Khalsa. Though Nalua was friends with the Prince, he opposed the reigns of the Khalsa Raj into the hands of one individual. He was well aware of the shortcomings of Lahore Darbar and the sacrifices made by the Khalsa to establish the Kingdom of Panjab. Hari Singh Nalua recommended Panjab’s reins be in the hands of Five Lovers (Panj Piare) to run it capably to avoid disastrous outcomes.

Alas!  The Maharaja paid no heed to the prophetic call of Nalua.

And the Land of Five Rivers was colonized, partitioned, and truncated in last hundred and fifty years. Her Hirs, Lailas, Sassis, Sohnis, and Soraths await the Five’s Collective Leadership to reclaim the sovereign Panjab!

 

 

Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force.

 

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